Hitting hard with “soft power”: China explores macro-measures to bolster its global cultural prowess
By David Bandurski — When Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged in his political report to the recent 17th National Congress to “promote [the] vigorous development and prosperity of Socialist culture,” he was talking not just about a re-awakening of arts and letters, but more importantly about a renaissance in China’s global power and influence.
He was talking about taking the kid gloves off and hitting hard with cultural “soft power.”
[ABOVE: Screenshot from Friends of Party Members and Cadres website article on 'soft power' showing an American student holding her Chinese language textbook.]
The language of “soft power” has come on strong in recent months in China, where leaders clearly now see culture as a key point of global contention among nation states.
“We cannot be soft on ‘soft power,’” declared an item in the official People’s Daily on March 31, 2006:
Just as experts have said, [despite China's being] a cultural fountainhead with more than 5,000 years of civilization, we only export television sets and don’t export content to be televised. We have become an “assembly plant.” Actually, culture is a key integral part of a country’s overall national strength, what people have called “soft power,” and it has become a point of competition between national powers.
“If China is to become a powerful nation,” the article concluded portentously, “culture, politics and the economy must strengthen in step.”
The rise of “soft power” as a buzzword for China’s political elite was further signaled in May of this year as propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (刘云山) made a tour of Henan province to push local “cultural industry development” (文化产业发展):
[Liu] said the first 20 years of this century were a key strategic period in China’s modernization process and also a key strategic period for cultural development. We must firmly grasp this historical opportunity, energetically promoting cultural development, working hard to achieve a major rise in our nation’s cultural soft power.” [Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao, May 21, 2007]
With all this talk of power and cultural prowess, it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that Samuel P. Huntington has emerged as the theoretical darling of China’s “soft power” set.
Huntington’s ideas, though, seem to have been applied in reverse, not as a descriptive thesis about culture and conflict in the post-Cold War world, but rather as a kind of 21st-century Art of War — a lesson, if you will, in cultural realpolitik.
Culture is first and foremost an expression of our souls and emotions, our spiritual home. But to speak plainly some powerful foreign nations wish to use culture as a weapon against other nations, and for this reason we must work hard to raise our country’s “soft power.”
Li Shulei speaks of two aspects of culture. First, there is the pure and peaceful aspect, in which “Socrates belongs to China, and Confucius belongs to foreign nations.” Then there is the clash or struggle of cultures — culture as conspiracy. One culture — or nation (his lines blur on this critical distinction, but then China, we are elsewhere told, is “a civilization masquerading as a nation-state”) — attempts to spiritually colonize another.
Li’s historical examples, Christian missionaries and the English language as tools of Western colonialism, don’t seem too far-fetched. But then his left hook swings for American pop culture:
When we speak of culture as impure and as struggle, we mean that culture has always been used as a tool by people in international struggles. We glimpse this in the earliest colonialists using English and Christianity to rule peoples in colonized regions, and today as America uses its movies and popular music to disseminate its ideology and expand its national interests.
Pop music and American strategic interests? Clearly, they don’t watch enough MTV over at the Central Party School.
Hu Jintao is dead serious, though, when talks in section seven of his political report about “promoting [the] vigorous development and prosperity of Socialist culture.”
In the preamble to that section Hu says China “must keep to the orientation of advanced socialist culture.” That, in turn, will “bring about a new upsurge in socialist cultural development, stimulate the cultural creativity of the whole nation, and enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country to better guarantee the people’s basic cultural rights and interests, enrich the cultural life in Chinese society and inspire the enthusiasm of the people for progress.”
How does Hu Jintao propose to accomplish this?
That’s where section seven, part four of his political report comes in. Hu’s strategy for cultural development and the raising of China’s “soft power” profile involves a range of policy mechanisms to “stimulate cultural innovation.”
Freedom of expression is not among them.
“The only way to invigorate culture,” says Hu, “is to promote innovation in its content and form, its structure and mechanism, and its means of dissemination from the high staring point of our times and release and develop its productive forces.”
China must “create more excellent, popular works that reflect the people’s principal position in the country and their real life.” It must “vigorously develop the cultural industry, launch major projects to lead the industry as a whole, speed up development of cultural industry bases and clusters of cultural industries with regional features, nurture key enterprises and strategic investors, create a thriving cultural market and enhance the industry’s international competitiveness.”
Since Hu’s pronouncements came out last October, we’ve gotten a glimpse of what the above passage means — basically, more media commercialization under party control. It means the creation of bigger, more powerful, more consolidated Chinese media groups that do the party’s bidding, an intensification of Hu’s earlier policies of the “Three Closenesses” (三贴近) and “media strengthening” (做强做大).
It was no mere coincidence when GAPP minister Liu Binjie (柳斌杰) announced on October 17 that China would now allow “comprehensive listings” (of both business and editorial sides) by media companies and invite an infusion of capital from major state-owned enterprises. Nor was it a surprise when news followed on November 20 that Liaoning Publishing & Media Company Limited (辽宁出版传媒股份有限公司) had become the first Chinese media company to make a so-called “comprehensive listing.”
Both moves were further signs that Chinese media consolidation and commercialization are heading into high gear.
But while culture must contribute to GDP and to “soft power,” control remains the paramount priority. It is embedded in the language of innovation.
“We must step up the development of the press, publishing, radio, film, television, literature and art, cleaving to correct guidance and fostering healthy social trends,” read section seven, part two, dealing with buiding a “culture of harmony.” “We will strengthen efforts to develop and manage Internet culture and foster a good cyber environment.”
For party leaders, creating “favorable conditions for producing fine works, outstanding personnel and good results” has nothing to do with a climate of free expression. It is not about liberating, it is about mobilizing.
Which is why China announced over the weekend that it is beginning work on a national awards system (荣誉制度) — proposed in the last line of section seven, part four of Hu’s report — as a means of impelling the people to greater things and “achieving victory over material desires.”
In the absence of specifics about how the system would take shape and what standards would be applied, a handful of Chinese media voiced their concerns.
At Yanzhao Dushi Bao (燕赵都市报), columnist Guo Songmin (郭松民) wrote plainly in his concluding paragraph about his fears that national awards might be manipulated by those with power and money:
What needs to be emphasized here is that the trend a future national awards system most needs to avoid is the route taken in education and academia, in which all one needs is money and power to obtain [awards]. This would lead ultimately to a surplus and abuse of awards and make the national awards symbols of bribery and abuse of power. If we cannot ensure that we avoid this kind of situation, we should not be in a hurry to build a national awards system.
True to form, Southern Metropolis Daily implicitly linked the question with larger concerns like political reform and rule of law.
Awards of this kind, the editorial’s logic tiptoed, are “achievements based upon values,” and “history has shown that those national honors that are truly commended and remembered by people of the world must be those that can be shared by humankind.”
Furthermore, “we’ve seen that many universal values, including democracy, freedom, fairness, rule of law, human rights and human dignity were written into the 17th National Congress report this year within the system of Socialist value objectives,” so . . .
The upshot was to caution that national awards should be made in a spirit of openness and be based on universal human values, not serve narrow national goals.
Hu Jintao, however, has already defined the spirit of these awards. They will serve the interests of the party in its goal of building of an “advanced socialist culture”, the kind that can make money hand over fist while minding propaganda discipline.
Suppression, macro-meddling, nationalism and cultural snobbery. Now there’s a recipe for a cultural renaissance.
But the proof, as Hu would tell you himself, is in the business. And the question is now set: when the flowers of China’s “soft power” are brought to market, will the free world care to buy them?